Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 2 Jan 03 06:21
Bruce Sterling is a science fiction writer and more - he's also known for his work as a journalist, public speaker, pop entertainer, and futurist. Bruce, a longtime denizen of the WELL, takes some time from his packed schedule at the first of each year to discuss the state of the world and his vision of the future. This year's visit happens to coincide with the release of his latest book, _Tomorrow Now_, a consideration of the next fifty years using a framework loosely derived from Shakespeare's "seven ages of man": - the infant, the student, the lover, the soldier, the justice, the pantaloon and "mere oblivion" (death). Here's how Bruce relates those seven ages to technology-focused speculations about the future: "Stage One: The Infant concerns genetics, reproduction, and microbiology. Stage Two: The Student is about information networks and new paradigms for the scholar. Stage Three: The Lover takes its cue from _Pygmalion_; it is about postindustrial design and our fiercely passionate relationship to our own creations. Stage Four: The Soldier is a war story about the growing New World Disorder, the new century's greatest security threat. Stage Five: The Justice tackles media and politics. Stage Six: The Pantaloon is a primer on twenty-first century information economics. Stage Seven: Mere Oblivion is about our struggle with morality and our assault on human limits." Jon Lebkowsky, a consultant, activist and writer also living in Austin, leads the discussion. Currently best known for his weblog at http://www.weblogsky.com, Lebkowsky focuses on internet, web, and other emergent technologies and their cultural impact. He is CEO of Austin's Polycot Consulting and President of EFF-Austin.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 2 Jan 03 06:26
Welcome back to inkwell.vue, Bruce! And welcome to all of our readers... those of you who are not members of the WELL but would like to participate in this discussion can send questions and comments to email@example.com, and they'll be posted here pretty quickly. Bruce, you're primarily a science fiction writer, but at times you're a futurist, as in this latest nonfiction work, _Tomorrow Now_. There seems to be an inherent link between science fiction (at least *hard* science fiction) and futurism ... but how do they differ? Doesn't the futurist have specific ways of seeing and evaluating the future that is different from a science-fiction approach? In writing _Tomorrow Now_, did you change your way of thinking about the future?
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Fri 3 Jan 03 09:22
It's all about the revenue stream, Jon. Science fiction is a form of popular entertainment. Heavy duty industrial futurism is stuff like forecasting the demand curve for freon-free refrigerators in the American Midwest, 28-34 demographic. You might get paid for it --lots -- the report alone might cost nine hundred bucks -- but Jesus, who wants to read that? Nobody WANTS to read it. Conceivably, somebody might HAVE to read it. What really happens is that the CEO is gonna do whatever he wants anyway about the refrigerators, and if anybody on the board of directors dares to cross him, he drops the 900-page futurist report on their desk and dares them to read it.
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Fri 3 Jan 03 09:26
On the other hand, every once in a while it's a good idea to knock the moss and algae off your received wisdom. I knew a long time ago that when the turn of the millennium came around I would be a middle-aged guy. I promised myself I would take some time off then and try to re-educate myself so I wouldn't THINK SO MUCH like a middle-aged guy. Unfortunately, I can't make myself think like a young guy, because I know too much and I've lost so much physical vitality, but on the other hand, after writing this book TOMORROW NOW, I think about the future like a middle-aged guy who is VERY, VERY ENGAGED.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Fri 3 Jan 03 11:52
What was it about writing the book that helped you become more engaged? And what led you to Shakespeare's "seven ages" as a framework? Is that something you had in mind for a while, or did the concept evolve while you were researching and writing?
Myles Byrne (jonl) Fri 3 Jan 03 16:25
Email from Myles Byrne: Did you get the idea to use the 7 Ages as the framework from Burning Man 2001, which used the Seven Ages as it's theme and even for street names? If so, is _Tomorrow Now_ a book you see Black Rock Citizens using as a bible for next-stage mass experiments after Burning Man? (We could use a more parseable Ur-text than _Dhalgren_.) Also, have you been influenced by other 'post-Jungian Futurisms' such as Strauss & Howe's _Fourth Turning_ (which uses four archetypes) and (Texas-born) Spiral Dynamics? Could you speak to your intents and experiences using a 'post Jungian' schema of archetypes for patterning _Tomorrow Now_? For instance, do you believe a mythic structure like the 7 Ages can serve as a grassroots rallying point? Thanks, Myles Byrne
Paul Terry Walhus (terry) Fri 3 Jan 03 16:29
What are the major technological advances that you see for the rest of your lifetime and how will they affect you personally?
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Sat 4 Jan 03 12:39
I can't believe I'm reduced to creeping onto the WELL through a free AOL account. I'm the slave of Case! Is Steve even in business any more? I actually feel sorry for him. The thing I liked best about that Shakespeare pitch is that it's about the passage of time as a carnal experience. It's the future as something lived, in the flesh. something tactile and visceral. I liked that preindustrial gutsiness there, the lack of grand glittering abstractions. I also liked it that he talks about the *hardware* associated with various stages of life, stuff like schoolboy's satchels and soldier's cannons. The book is a series of linked essays about major change drivers native to the 21st century, but if you want people to read a book, you can't just start riffing and go for 60,000 words. You need some kind of framework. A sense of propulsion and narrative traction. I felt that one might work, and it turns out that it does.
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Sat 4 Jan 03 12:46
Could you speak to your intents and experiences using a 'post Jungian' schema of archetypes for patterning _Tomorrow Now_? For instance, do you believe a mythic structure like the 7 Ages can serve as a grassroots rallying point? *Myles, my man, I sense the fatal reek of newage here. There is just no way that Shakespeare is "post-Jungian." *I've been to Burning Man and I had a pretty good time, but that doesn't mean I abandoned all critical rationality on the playa. Okay, granted, at the geyser in the mudhole, I abandoned critical rationality there for about an hour and a half, but then I got it all back and became the hardened reductionist atheist skeptic that I've been for years. *If I needed a "grassroots rallying point," the very LAST place I would pick is a barren desert where everyone is naked, in drag or on psychedelics. A place with some VOTING BOOTHS, dude, and people who are, like sober enough to punch out all the hanging chad, that's what a pro would want.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sat 4 Jan 03 12:55
In the first section - "The Infant" - you pretty much dismiss human cloning in favor of genome hacking to make, not children who are similar to their parents, but children who are superior. Cloning's a big deal lately, at least with UFO cults... do you think it's an inherent first step in manipulating genes? (I'm tempted to imagine a vast army of Raelian superclones goose-stepping down Broadway....)
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Sat 4 Jan 03 13:10
I think these Raelians (assuming that they didn't just make it all up) are guilty of an unconscionable act of child abuse. But I think they've done us all a favor with this particular propaganda of the deed. It might have taken us years to figure out that cloning infants is not a big deal, but a crazy aberration that only stupid cultists would pull. Now it's gonna be obvious to anybody who bothers to think the issue through. Al Qaeda, Aum Shinri Kyo, Raelians, they're all wealthy multinational cults repurposing hardware invented by cleverer people. And they can't build anything. They bring wrack and ruin. Those Raelians aren't pioneers of anything, they're just going to bring the patchouli stench of lunacy over everything from stem cells to fertility treatments. I make an argument in TOMORROW NOW that if you want to mess with DNA the ideal DNA is bacterial DNA, for a lot of practical, industrial reasons. It's an argument against the grain, but I think time is going to bear me out here.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sat 4 Jan 03 13:59
Hold the eugenics, pass the microbes. But are we in danger, then, of creating an accidental 'Andromeda strain'? That's a traditional science fiction argument, no?
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Sun 5 Jan 03 06:28
I wouldn't describe Andromeda Strain as an "argument." I think that's better described as a "dramatization." Robots are a dramatization of automation. "Hey look, we don't need manual laborers. They'll be replaced by sophisticated machines. They'll be like proletarians, only more obedient. But WHAT IF ONE MARRIES YOUR DAUGHTER? Aieee!" But if the real issue is improving factory assembly, it makes no commercial sense to build a two-legged artificial humanoid. Real assembly robots, that make real money, are basically one giant arm and a couple of videocams. Humanoid robots are dramatization devices exclusively, they are stars of stage and screen, or they're led around by sexy booth-babes to do headline-grabbing demos. So, yeah, we'll probably have all kinds of problems with tame microbes, but it'll be like the problems with microbes we already do have: spoilage, bad yeast, dysentery, that kind of thing. Having one of them suddenly kill everybody in the whole world, that's just a cheap way to stop thinking about the real problem.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sun 5 Jan 03 11:08
You talk about the "wailing, sleepless, septic mess" that is early parenthood, and follow that with a paragraph about "seething DNA...furious arguments, grim responsibility, ansious compromise, and seriously wrecked routines." I.e. the future of genetics is messy, complicated, a little nuts, and totally human. That made me think of the imagery of the Viridian Design web site, suggesting both fertility and decay, an organic grunge, something to offend sterile design sensibilities (too common on the web). Are you drawn to the messier aspects of human existence? Would you rather observe and appreciate these messier aspects of human existance than clean 'em up?
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Sun 5 Jan 03 18:44
Yeah, the issue has got its aesthetic aspects and I take a certain connoisseur's pleasure in them. It was running "Dead Media Project" and writing a "steampunk" novel that made me aware of the intense romance in defunct and rotting technologies. But it's not a question of my personal preference. Organic means of production are wet by their nature, they are gooey and splattery and profligate. You can't approach them effectively with old-fashioned mechanical engineering. For instance, if you try to augment a broken human thighbone with a steel brace screwed into the bone, it soon fails because the rest of the bone wastes away. A live thighbone is not just a weight-bearing member, it is an ongoing organic process. If you take the stress off that bone, the calcium will leach away into the body to serve other purposes. You can still engineer bone, but you need a sophisticated biomedical engineering that is aware of wet, salty, hot metabolism inside the flesh. If it's gooey and sticky, it's no use your flinching. If you're going to do it at all, learn to do it right. One of "the messiest aspects of human existence" is when we are a single-celled organism. We've never really gotten our heads around this aspect of our own identity.
TOM GEORGOULIAS writes... (tnf) Sun 5 Jan 03 20:08
From Tom Georgoulias: Bruce: I was wondering why you chose not to address the effect of patents on future technology development. You came sort of close to the topic in "The Justice", but as that section was more about political and government influence on the network it didn't really delve into just what patents may do for/to us. Recent articles in the "New Scientist," "MIT Technology Review", and "New York Times" have all pointed to a increasing trend of locking up scientific knowledge with restrictive patents, especially in the software and biotechnology fields. -- Tom Georgoulias
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Mon 6 Jan 03 13:14
*That's a good question. *The next to last chapter of the book concerns itself with intellectual property and business models. This business of "locking up scientific knowledge" is hugely interesting to me. In fact I just wrote a short article about that for an upcoming WHOLE EARTH mag. *We've got schools of thought, sometimes on the same webpage, that postulate a total mindblowing superscience Singularity breakthrough that renders all human history moot overnight, and then at the same time imagines this Orwellian numbed ADBUSTERS world where the Carlyle Group patents the laws of physics and Monsanto makes chemistry a trade secret. *But we can't possibly have both of those worlds at the same time, unless, you know, you read SLASHDOT a lot. They are in a dynamic tension which is getting stupider and uglier by the day, and something big is gonna give. *Could well be the Internet. We may find ourselves in a form of Soviet Capitalism where a new Patent Securitate puts a Palladium serial number inside every typewriter. If your economic model is widely derided and phony baloney, then that's the sort of thing you've pretty much got to do. You 'can always claim that the alternative is chaos -- and if you're really smart, you'll take some steps to see that all the possible alternatives STAY chaos. *Personally, I'm rather well-known as an information-wants-to-be-free zealot, but I'm one of these rare guys who takes the trouble to make some of HIS OWN information free.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 6 Jan 03 18:59
I find myself wondering whether the case for "free" has a future, though there are compelling arguments... "creative commons," free software, open source alternatives, that sort of thing. Surely profit's not the only incentive pushing innovation?
(jacob) Mon 6 Jan 03 22:33
I just picked this up at Borders (shelved under Sociology, so it took a database search to find it) and I just finished the Soldier chapter. Bear with me if I'm missing points made or summed-up later in the book, but it seems in the Soldier chapter you focus very much on a particular type of player in the recent conflicts in the world (Arkan, Catli, etc) and, well, mostly on the events of the 90s. Obviously I see your point in picking out this advance threads you think will develop more, and the biographies are really fascinating, but I wondered if that was most of your picture of the next 50 or so years of warfare? Also, the focus there is on the balkans, turkey, and the former USSR, but what do you think about Africa (particularly west and central Africa) and Southeast Asia? In Africa in particular it seems like the former colonial powers are getting involved again, and those conflict seem distinctly different from the middle-east/central asian confrontations that rate more attention right now, to me at least.
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Tue 7 Jan 03 09:01
*Yeah, my chapter on the military is about warlords of the 1990s, but I hammer on that because I don't think people get it yet. They don't get it that large sections of the "developing world" are not developing at all but descending into armed narcoterror. And that this, not other states, is the major security threat in the future. Arkan and Catli are of particular interest because they were both *anti* terrorists who tore civil society to shreds while getting rich off state-supported death squads. Now that you know how Abdullah Catli operated (and he was pretty far from a household word in the USA) try comparing the USA of 1998 to the USA of 2003. Which one would make Catli happier? Which one wants to hire and arm a lot of Catlis? Yes he is dead, but that guy isn't behind us -- he is AHEAD OF US. As for Basaev, he is not a 90s guy, he is a major contemporary figure. He is very likely the guy who just sent two suicide truck bombs into the core of the Chechnyan puppet government and blew the living daylights out of it. He was also, probably, one of the major planners of the Moscow theater hostage seizure. Basaev is showing way more liveliness and initiative than any other Moslem guerrilla. As for Africa, it is just colossally awful. Africa doesn't matter to any power broker who counts, but it's really sort of amazing that such a huge area of the planet can be cheerfully abandoned to plague, looting, rapine and savagery. If you blew up North Korea's junta with a bunker-buster, the regime would likely collapse like a house of cards, but try that in Somalia. The US military doesn't even want to TALK about Somalia. They don't want to go anywhere near it. They'd rather come up with Axes of Evil so they can have some states to blow up. It's like being a hammer when the house is on fire, and looking around for some nails.
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Tue 7 Jan 03 09:25
I find myself wondering whether the case for "free" has a future, though there are compelling arguments... "creative commons," free software, open source alternatives, that sort of thing. Surely profit's not the only incentive pushing innovation? *Well, a lot of concepts sound great on paper or on a screen. "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs," that sounds cool and alternative. But, you know, where's the demo? *There are plenty of incentives pushing innovation. "Innovation" is a nice word, but innovation with some staying power and some practical traction in daily life, that's another matter. *For instance, I've got "ThinkFree" office suite on my Mac, but it's so clumsy, slow and badly designed that the thrill of ideological correctness soon wore off. A genuinely successful technology can't carry that much of a cognitive load. It can't divorce itself from profit and try to run forever on sublime feelings of moral superiority. If there is a "future for free," then free has to actually function and work, unquestioned and below the level of conscious awareness. Free would just have to be the way things were. And if you look at the way things are where free is, it's interesting, but it's not all that great. If you look at, say, Internet streaming media, you can see that there is a lot of fun free stuff offered, but it's almost all hobbyist stuff. It's free like hotel matches are free. Nobody has found a method yet to raise 50 million dollars, make GONE WITH THE WIND and give that away online. If you have a huge burn rate and no revenue stream, well, you just can't keep it up. The sort of artwork that thrives in the Internet medium is stuff like that guy who makes those weird little singing puppet cats. The kittens that do versions of other people's rock songs. Note that these are not even the artist's original songs. It's a free-use parody, it's appropriated and cut-up. It's hysterically, and he gets blogged all over, but, you know, in terms of cinema, this is like a college student at a party doing karaoke with a lampshade over his head.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 7 Jan 03 10:35
<scribbled by jonl Wed 8 Jan 03 03:10>
Tom Georgoulias (jonl) Tue 7 Jan 03 20:21
Email from Tom Georgoulias: Profit, at least in the monetary sense of the word, is not the only thing pushing innovation. I firmly believe that. I'm typing this response on the demo of a concept of "from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs." I have on my computer a completely free operating system and slew of applications to go with it. The OS guts are ultra solid, my Internet tools (browser, mailer, etc) are on par or exceed their commercial counterparts, and the GUI is easy to use. It isn't junk by any measurement. I've seen my employer pay thousands of dollars for software that is much worse that what I am using now, all of which I got for nothing. Zip. Zero. Nada. I look at free software as a way of applying the scientific method to programming. Equations and theories are freely shared among scientists, who trade them back and forth and do whatever they want with them in their labs. They report back what they find and the whole process repeats itself. Same with free software. Programmers get parts they need from other programmers, write code for the parts they're lacking, then pass those along to even more programmers. The stuff that works tends to stick around, the stuff that doesn't dies off. Just like theories. Here's an example of free actually functioning: the Apache web server. Something like half the servers on the Internet run Apache and it comes bundled with servers sold by huge, profit driven computer companies neck deep in the white knuckle race to stay in the game. It doesn't require a level of conscious awareness either, Apache just does the job it was designed to do. Profit didn't get it started either, it came from the normal process of hackers sharing code with each other. Perhaps it is better to say that the type of non-profit driven innovation that thrives on the Internet is the stuff that hackers deal in. Think of it as hacker currency. The hackers were there first, when money wasn't the primary factor. They were still there when the cash clowns tried to pull a fast one and make the Internet a fountain of wealth. They'll be there to shut the place down too, if it ever comes to that. Money doesn't run _everything_. -- Tom Georgoulias
David Adam Edelstein (davadam) Tue 7 Jan 03 20:51
The question that has to be asked, of course, is "what are they doing to feed and house themselves that allows them to spend hundreds of hours making great software that they give away for free?" I'd be willing to bet that not all of the code they write is given away for free, and not just because (full disclosure) I work for the Borg. I share your distaste for the "cash clowns" (great term), but I also don't think that charging for software is necessarily a bad thing.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 8 Jan 03 03:18
In your second chapter, on "The Student," you dismiss "artificial intelligence," again in favor of what's messy, organic, and human. You say that "the aspects of ourselves that are least machinelike are the ones with the greatest technological promise." What are the implications for education? What should today's kids be thinking about, aside from Pokemon, Yugi-oh, and DragonBall-Z?
Tom Georgoulias (jonl) Wed 8 Jan 03 03:38
Email from Tom Georgoulias: I don't think charging for software is a bad thing either. I just wanted to provide some concrete examples of where non-profit driven innovation is more than just ideology, but actual working and useful technology. A lot of free software is developed by people who are working somewhere and use free software in that job, but not necessarily as the main product or service of that company. For example, chip designers who use gcc to compile their designs and then share patches that fix compiler bugs they've discovered. Or it comes from academia, where it is a common chore for departments to make a computers out of hardware junk heaps. Or programmers who don't find their day jobs mentally stimulating enough. It seems there are all sorts of reasons why people write free software. I don't know all of the reasons why, but the code is out there and gets better all the time. I absolutely think there is a need for a "creative commons" that houses fundamental modern science and technology for the benefit of everyone, unencumbered by patents. Patents are tools, and like most tools they can be used for good and evil. I think there is plenty of reason to be concerned about how patents will affect us in the future. It is an issue that will require some careful consideration and an incredible balancing act. Bruce, care to share some of what you said in your upcoming Whole Earth article? -- Tom Georgoulias
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